Saturday, I received the word from my friend and frequent commenter chasinvictoria that Keith Levene had died from liver cancer. When I think of the three guitarists from the Post-Punk era who helped to define the new concepts that would drive the development of guitar playing for the next few years, three immediately come to mind. Robin Simon of Ultravox, John McGeoch of Magazine, and Keith Levene of Public Image Limited. All three of them were instrumental in removing the guitar from its roots in Folk or Blues music into more abstract, textural areas suitable for the complexity of modern life. Where little is in black and white.
Levene’s imprint was down to a tight trilogy of released albums yet the music itself could not have sprawled more wildly outside the boundaries of Punk rigor. How he came to that point was a storied tale. Levene had been besotted at an early age with Prog Rock and he actually worked as a roadie for Yes as a thirteen year old. Yet three years later, he was the guitarist for Sid Vicious’ infamous proto-Punk collective The Flowers Of Romance. From there, he became an instigator of The Clash and was personally responsible for getting Joe Strummer to leave the 101ers and to join them instead.
But by the time The Clash started to move up in the world, he was already gone from that band. Levene was uninterested in the increasingly political thrust of their music due to the machinations of Bernie Rhodes. When The Sex Pistols imploded, Lydon moved on and remembered Levene from The Clash and he became the core of Public Image Limited, v. 1, with John Lydon, Jah Wobble, and Jim Walker.
Magazine released their debut album six months ahead of PiL, but Lydon was the other former Punk lead vocalist making bold forward moves in defining the way out of the Punk cul-de-sac. PiL’s debut single was thrilling in that it managed to be both atonal and anthemic in one fell swoop. The rhythm section invoked both Dub and Rock but the open chords favored by Levene would prove to be highly influential in the developing Post-Punk [as it would be called] scene. But that first single was deceptively conventional next to what would soon follow.
As the opening “Theme” made abundantly clear on PiL’s “First Issue” album. The dirge-like track was defined by shards of Levene’s heavily flanged guitar attacking the listener with its metallic scorn for a full nine minutes. The relentless feedback only began to falter at the 8:30 mark. Elsewhere, “Annalisa” and “Low Life” approached Punk tempos and urgency. Then the closing “Fodderstopmf” broke free to contain virtually no guitar but acted as an outlier to the band’s future.
The following “Metal Box”/”Second Edition” sought to introduce the influence of Krautrock into the band’s Dub aesthetic. Guitar was still in evidence, but the sound was expanding to encompass synthesizers [as introduced on “Fodderstompf”] and the band’s third album, “Flowers Of Romance,” had virtually nothing but vocals, Levene’s increasingly spidery synths and lots of drums. Jah Wobble had left the band after “Metal Box” and Levene would follow suit after “Flowers Of Romance.” He had been involved with the pre-production for the fourth PiL album, but famously pulled out of the band and as Lydon roped in other musicians and started fresh, Levene issued his tapes as the bootleg “Commercial Zone.”
Levene was silent for the six years after he left PiL and he re-emerged in 1989 with the “Violent Opposition” album. I recall seeing a video played on 120 Minutes for the cover of “If Six Was Nine” but that’s all that I had heard from this project. Levene never was ubiquitous following his stint in PiL. He contributed to Adrian Sherwood’s Dub project New Age Steppers, and he played with former band mate Martyn Atkins in his Pigface project with the “Easy Listening” album of 2003. In recent years he would team up with Jah Wobble and they recorded several projects together, as well as re-casting “Metal Box In Dub” as a tour they undertook in 2012.
My representation of him in the Record Cell is very concise, but the first three PiL albums were bold statements of musicians willing to explore any new territory, no matter how difficult the path might become. Levene sought to rip the guitar from the book of hidebound cliché it had become encumbered with for too long. Using the flames of Punk to renew and reclaim the instrument for excursions into unknown territories. And can we ask for more of that from our musicians? Condolences to his wife and family for their loss at this time.